What course evaluations are worth

Q: “How could the instructor improve this course?”

A: “Ninjas.”

That is an actual written response a student gave me on an end-of-semester course evaluation. For the record, I did not implement this recommendation.

Answers like this raise the question of the value of formal course evals. Are they telling us anything useful? Can they possibly help us to improve our teaching, especially given how students do not always take them seriously?

Few faculty are likely to think that student evaluations of teaching offer the definitive word on teaching effectiveness. More are likely to dismiss the evals altogether for one of many possible reasons: students are in no position to judge good teaching, ratings are a popularity contest, high eval scores are mostly the result of professors giving high grades, etc. For what it’s worth, students are often uncertain about the worth of course evals, too.

Despite the flaws in so many course evaluation instruments, the data they collect are surely telling professors something. Faculty need to know what that is and how to use it to improve their teaching.

In a chapter of her book Inspired College Teaching, Maryellen Weimer (editor of the always-helpful Teaching Professor newsletter) explains ways to frame and learn from course evaluations. She runs down the list of course eval limitations and the ways that evals are nonetheless (mis)used to make decisions. She recognizes that evals are surrounded by many “myths, half-truths, and urban legends” (51).

Weimer thinks that evals are useful, however, for identifying long-term trends in students’ response to teaching. Did evaluation figures for a course decline after you implemented a major change to the course? Have they risen since then? Evals can also be useful for making big-picture comparisons with similar instructors and similar courses.

Weimer emphasizes the big-picture and abstract nature of evals. For example, many eval forms ask students about an instructor’s “organization.” As Weimer rightly notes, “organization” can mean many different things, from being timely in grading papers to offering a clear outline of a class session’s goals. A relatively low score in organization should invite an instructor to find out just what students mean by “organization” before deciding to make changes to a course.

But how can you do that? The damage is done. The course is over. You can’t change the past. That’s true, but you will probably teach that course again, and you may also carry the same teaching habits from one course to the next. Your current students can be a resource for you to figure out what your previous students were trying to tell you.

So ask them. We are approaching the semester’s midpoint, a good time to solicit unofficial, targeted feedback from your students, while there is still time for you and for them to make changes to improve the course’s effectiveness and their learning.

Incidentally, soliciting feedback from students more than once a term is a behavior that 72% of students questioned for one study said characterized the “ideal professor.” There is evidence to suggest that simply soliciting feedback before the end of the semester at all could lead to higher evaluation scores at the end.

Weimer suggests that we should “see summative results as one of several different information-generating activities, all of which contribute to a growing and evolving understanding of how one’s teaching influences efforts to learn.” You might also consider talking about your evals with a trusted colleague who can “help you gain perspective, insights, and ideas about what to do next” (71). Indeed, CELT is ready to do exactly that.

You’ll have to find your own ninjas, though.

What valuable information, if any, do you get from reading your end-of-semester course evaluations? Do you plan to solicit mid-semester feedback from your students? If so, what will you ask?

Reference: Weimer, Maryellen (2010). Inspired College Teaching: A Career-Long Resource for Professional Growth. San Francisco: Jossey-Bass.

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